ISIS may have pulled off its biggest attack yet against the West. But don’t expect the West to escalate its war on ISIS all that much.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris last week, the calls in Washington for doing more militarily moved from inside national security circles to the forefront of public debate.
But President Obama insisted Monday that while there would be changes in the number of airstrikes on ISIS and the amount of intelligence shared with France, the U.S. would not be drawn further into the conflict.
That limited approach is driven by a strong desire to avoid a major ground deployment of U.S. troops, an interest in avoiding civilian casualties, and a lack of an explicit congressional authorization to use force; for months these have defined the U.S. strategy in Syria. And in the Obama administration’s eye, it’s working. The president said in the days before the Paris attack that the United States had “contained” the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria.
And on Monday, Obama said the strategy would not change.
Rather, the response—at least, the overt response—would be more of the same, just a bit more aggressively done. The French air assault on Sunday on Raqqa marked a ramp up of assaults but not a change in the kind of warfare the West would wage against the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS.
On Monday, the coalition also hit more than 100 oil trucks, the largest number to date, targeting the vehicles that drive out crude oil that fund the terror group. The U.S. strikes in the Syrian city of Deir el-Zour “were carried out by four A-10 attack planes and two AC-130 gunships based in Turkey,” according The New York Times, which first reported on the strike.
“We are trying to attack the distribution network,” a U.S. defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
Advocates of doing more argue that the coalition must destroy the sanctuary where attacks like the ones in Paris were allegedly plotted, and possibly financed. (On Monday, French Prime Minister Manuel Vallis said the Paris attacks were planned and organized in Syria.) Some believe that can only happen with ground troops.
But the coalition has so far rejected that. The French-led offensive on Raqqa on Sunday was a marriage of the tweaked approach.
The French “are surging [aimed at] sending a message,” one defense official explained to The Daily Beast. The U.S.-led coalition “gave them the targets.”
CIA Director John Brennan hinted in public remarks that the fight against ISIS would become more aggressive in the days to come, but not change dramatically.
“The grave threat posed by the phenomenon of ISIL makes it absolutely imperative that the international community urgently commit to achieving an even greater and unprecedented level of cooperation, collaboration, information sharing, and joint action—in intelligence, law enforcement, military, and diplomatic channels,” he said Monday.
Some in Washington were not impressed. Lawmakers and advocates are renewing a push for Congress to pass an authorization of military force that would both outline the administration’s powers to fight ISIS but also explicitly constrain it.
“As the administration properly acknowledges, we are at war. Yet, we are at war without congressional authorization. And none of the members of Congress has standing to complain of the president’s conduct of that war if we render ourselves irrelevant by failing to debate and vote on the matter,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and an ardent proponent of the need to pass such a bill.
The failure to pass an AUMF—or Authorization for the Use of Military Force—has been a frustrating outcome for those on the left and right who have argued that Congress is abdicating its primary responsibility when it comes to the fight against efforts. Until now, the administration had been relying on authorization passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“The notion that a 14-year-old statute, passed to authorize military action against a different enemy, is a substitute for congressional buy-in in the fight to destroy ISIL is insufficient,” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told The Daily Beast, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror group. “This is going to be a long, multilateral campaign, and both our allies and adversaries need to know exactly where Congress stands. If that wasn’t apparent before the attacks in Paris, it ought to be now.”
Although the White House had sent a draft authorization to Congress earlier this year, disputes about the specifics of the bill combined with the cowardliness of lawmakers to take a tough, career-defining vote meant that the body has not even had a serious debate on the matter, let alone a vote.
“The president requested authority to take the war to ISIS almost a year ago, and Republicans have abdicated their national security responsibilities by not even taking up that legislation. If they don’t like the wording, fine, they should start negotiating with the administration in earnest. It’s time to put aside partisanship and deal with the threat,” said Mieke Eoyang, the national security director at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
But following the Paris attacks, supporters of the need to pass a congressional authorization of force see the event as a renewed rallying call for their effort. Later this week, Flake will take to the Senate floor to give yet another speech on the need to pass a bill, his office said, joining with other lawmakers who have made the AUMF a core demand.
“I strongly believe we need to further increase our efforts in Syria and Iraq directly and expand our support to partner nations in other countries where ISIL is operating,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Saturday.
“It has become clear that limited air strikes and support for Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition are not sufficient to protect our country and our allies,” she continued. “This is a war that affects us all, and it’s time we take real action to confront these monsters who target innocent civilians.”
But speaking at a press conference at the G-20 meeting in Antalya, Turkey, Obama sounded annoyed by reporters who questioned whether he’d done enough to repel ISIS and resisted further U.S. intervention.
“Not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before… [I]f you do not have local populations that are committing to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries,” Obama said.
In the past, when nations were personally struck by ISIS’s brutality, there has been a ramp of attacks that dwindle as incidents become ancillary in the minds of domestic audiences. After 21 Coptic Egyptians were beheaded by ISIS, the Egyptians conducted an airstrike in Libya in response. This year, when ISIS released a gruesome 20-minute video showing one of its captured pilots, Lt. Muath al Kessabeh, burned alive while held in a cage, Jordan conducted a series of strikes in Syria, but its pace of strikes have slowed since.
—with additional reporting by Shane Harris